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Rick Santorum Is Kinda Coming Back for 2016

Rick Santorum Is Kinda Coming Back for 2016

Among potential Republican presidential contenders in the 2016 Iowa caucuses,Rick Santorum is polling at around 6 percent. He’s mired behind more than half-dozen candidates, some of whom have never campaigned the Hawkeye State, let alone won the first in the nation caucuses. But while the former Pennsylvania senator may not be in an ideal position for a presidential hopeful, he’s still light years beyond where he was was at this time four years ago.

Indeed, Santorum didn’t start regularly cracking the 6 percent mark in polls until December 2011, just a month before the caucuses. That was after spending more than a year going back and forth across the state, where he boasted about visiting all 99 counties.

On Friday night, the former Pennsylvania senator tried to jump-start a return to the top of the polls in front of a crowd of about 125 at a picnic in Boone, Iowa, held by the county Republican Party. Santorum arrived long after the event had started, as an array of election officials and candidates took turns delivering stem winders to rally the party faithful who had gathered for a barbecue dinner in a city park on a pleasant August evening. He emerged from the parking lot with a grin on his face and stuck his hands in his pockets as he loped toward the event, just waiting for someone to recognize him. After so many months in 2011 of toiling in anonymity before crowds of five or 10 people, he was appearing effortlessly before scores of key Republican activists, including Gov. Terry Branstad and Rep. Steve King. But the event didn’t pause for Santorum. Instead, after about 30 or 45 seconds, two women helping to organize the picnic went up to him, welcoming him and taking him off to the side to meet and greet the other organizers. 

Both Friday night in Boone and at the bigger Family Leader Summit on Saturday in Ames, Santorum gave what has become his standard stump speech, focusing on themes from his book Blue Collar Conservatives. But unlike some other GOP presidential hopefuls, he appeared more focused on using his book to promote his potential candidacy than the other way around.

Santorum’s spiel at both events seemed designed to differentiate him from other social conservative candidates. Whereas in 2012 Santorum’s competition for the Iowa GOP’s Christian base faded by caucus night—Newt Gingrich was brought down by attack ads and his colorful marital history, Rick Perry by Oxycontin, and Michele Bachmann by being herself—this year the former senator faces a far more crowded field that potentially includes Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, and Perry again. Jamie Johnson, a state central committee member and Santorum supporter in 2012, compared the situation to the Miami Dolphins backfield in the early 1970s, when the team had three great running backs but only two who could make it on the field at any one time.

In this logjam, Santorum was under particular pressure to deliver a strong performance at Saturday’s Family Leader Summit. Bob Vander Plaats, the summit’s organizer and a leading Iowa social conservative, told The Daily Beast that as “the defending champion,” Santorum’s speech had some of “the highest stakes” of anyone who appeared. Vander Plaats said he thought the former Pennsylvania senator needed to remind attendees “why he won the Iowa caucuses and why he’s the one to champion their values and lead on those moving forward.” Instead, in a unique appeal, Santorum avoided hot button social issues almost totally and did something peculiar: He went after Ronald Reagan.

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